“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding” – Khalil Gibran
The fragrance of cinnamon mingled with the salty sea breeze wafted in as I walked into the garden of our house in Hikkaduwa on the second anniversary of the tsunami. The cinnamon twigs were piled up on the back verandah. “we are rebuilding the fence on the seaside,” said Gunadasa, our caretaker, a polio victim when young, he survived the tsunami.
The twigs are from the small plot of cinnamon that my sister-in-law Padmini owns. Prasanna her husband and my brother who died in the tsunami looked after the cinnamon plot. He normally would have been there supervising his workers. On that fateful day he was taking it easy reading the Sunday papers in an easy planter’s chair in the cottage just a few steps away from the beach.
The house remains forlorn but not forgotten. The contrast between the front portion of the house built by my grandfather in 1911, which largely withstood the tsunami onslaught and the hastily rebuilt back portion was heart breaking. There were no cement blocks where our little cottage by the sea was. An ipomea creeper growing lushly has removed every vestige of the cosy cottage and masking all signs of the of the tragedy.
So what are we left with? Did we learn anything from it? Well, we certainly didn’t know how to forge a peace and reconcile the divided of this land. We who celebrate life so lavishly at birthdays, marriages, anniversaries are still uncomfortable with death. Our grief is suppressed; we talk fleetingly about death; trying to rationalize the passing away of a loved one so we can control the pain.
What was the most difficult thing for us after the tsunami? It forced us to look at death and destruction mass scale. Some were not confronted with one death in a family but several. There were bodies everywhere. My lasting memory is not of the wave but all the bodies piled up on lorries, bodies lying on the cold cement floor at the rural hospital in Arachchiknade, Hikkaduwa. Memories are also of how we walked, hitch hiked looking for my brother’s body, praying to gods I had never prayed before –asking for one favour –please, please let me see him one more time, let me find him.
At first I didn’t see him. I only saw the others –children, young and old women, old men, The struggle to survive still visible in their faces, bodies bloated,foaming at the mouth. Numb with pain I turned away, sat on a step and cried. Later my nephew Kanishka found me sitting on a wooden bench. It was with Kanishka going around the dead bodies for the second time that I found Prasanna. The red striped Tshirt — a gift from my niece Ranmali and her Aussie husband Aaron he was proudly showing off that morning was gone. He lay on his back, injuries not visible and his face was peaceful. Was death in all its brutality kind to him in the final minutes?